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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My Week of Eating Locally -- and What I Learned

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2015 at 7:00 AM

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Maddie Earnest, owner of Local Harvest Grocery and Cafe. - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
  • Photo by Mabel Suen
  • Maddie Earnest, owner of Local Harvest Grocery and Cafe.

I ask about the fruit situation — whether anything is available, preserved or fresh — and she's realistic. "In a dream world, we would be canning and preserving in the summer so that we would have them for the late winter. Honestly, though, in 'times of yore' people would eat really meat-heavy and rely on what was in storage. Luckily, farmers are now able to grow things in greenhouses. It's a bit of a false season, but it works, and is a way for us to have produce and farmers to have income year round."

I wonder about our romanticism of the "times of yore" Earnest speaks of, and can't help but think that a pioneer would consider winter strawberries like my 60-something maternity nurse considered epidurals: "Why on earth wouldn't you want one? I would have killed for one when I had my nine-pound baby without pain relief." I think of how difficult life on the prairie would have been, relying on stockpiles of root vegetables and dried meat for months on end. Potatoes and salt pork for days? Progress is a good thing.

But I get Earnest, DeSmet and Flood's point: For the most part, we've become completely disconnected from our food, dependent on large-scale corporate agriculture and all too willing to fill our bodies with food of questionable safety and quality. You need only consider Frontline's recent gag-inducing expose of the poultry industry to support the small-scale farmers who try to raise their animals in a more humane and sanitary way.

"For me, I can break it down to three main reasons for why it's important to eat local," Earnest says. "First, it's important to support the local and regional economy. It's a way to have a direct impact on where you live. Think about it — you can shift an economy with your dollars."

She continues, "Think about how food is grown and produced, and the environmental impact of what you choose to eat. The third reason relates to the second: Think about what you are putting into your body. It comes down to a health decision. Oh, and then there is the foodie reason: that it just tastes better."

I'm pumped from my pep talk and armed with a newfound enthusiasm for the week, even sans coffee. For lunch, I sauté some green onions, sunflower shoots and lion's mane mushrooms. Local Harvest is out of walnut oil, so I cheat and use a dash of olive oil, but still no salt. The meal is delicious and made from two ingredients (the mushrooms and the sprouts) that I would normally pass on.

My dinner plans are more conservative — chicken and sautéed kale — but once again I hit a roadblock: The chicken fails to thaw on time and my husband isn't hungry.

I eat a vegetable omelet. At this point, I've eaten so many eggs that I'm worried I'll be found in the back yard scratching in the dirt.

I'm thrilled to have yogurt back in my life after my Local Harvest shopping excursion (and even more thrilled to have an egg-less meal), but my excitement turns to horror when I open the refrigerator.

"I think something is wrong with the fridge," my husband has been saying for days, but I paid him no attention. Now the warm air and smell of spoiling food forces me to face a terrible fact: The refrigerator is broken. "All of my food is in there," I protest.

I have no idea what to do about the challenge. My neighborhood grocery is worthless. I can't run all the way down to Local Harvest, shop, return to the house and cook. It would take at least an hour, maybe two, and by that time, I would have a full-blown toddler revolt on my hands.

Radishes from the International Institute in St. Louis. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Photo by Steve Truesdell
  • Radishes from the International Institute in St. Louis.

The real problem, though, is that I can think of no restaurant that will satisfy the requirements of the challenge. That's the thing about dining out when trying to eat locally: It's not happening. Sure, there's Niche or the Libertine or Sidney Street Cafe or any number of higher-end places that have made an honorable commitment to offering locally sourced food. For the most part, however, a locavore ideologue looking to dine out quickly and casually is out of luck. Mom wants to try a cute little tearoom for Mother's Day? That quiche is probably made with factory eggs and wheat from unknown origins. Craving pizza? You'd better plan well in advance to make your own, dough and all, because there is no going out for a slice.

To be fair to Earnest, her intention was never to make this an endurance test. "We talked off and on about the idea of the challenge and thought, 'Surely this has been done before.' I did a little research and found out that New Orleans does something very similar, so we modeled ours off of that."

Asparagus from Double Star Farm in Bluford, Illinois. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Photo by Steve Truesdell
  • Asparagus from Double Star Farm in Bluford, Illinois.

Unlike the New Orleans Eat Local Challenge, which allows participants to choose between four levels of strictness (the lowest level is just a twice-weekly dalliance), Earnest created goal sheets for St. Louis participants. "Have fun with it!" Earnest cheerfully exclaims, encouraging people to take things as far as they want without killing themselves.

I, however, am not having fun. Clearly, I'm missing the point of what this is about, even as I feel guilty contemplating a shift, as if any concessions are a way of giving up.

Something has to change, though. I call the repairman, pack up my daughter, and decide to redefine my parameters.

As I drive around in search of an acceptable breakfast spot — something in the spirit of the challenge, if not its letter — my thoughts drift toward Barbara Kingsolver and her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Kingsolver's book has become a sacred text of the locavore movement, detailing her year of living off the land at a family farm in rural Virginia. She doesn't hide that she moved from Tucson to make the experiment work, which suggests she realized that she couldn't sustain herself on prickly pears and roadrunners for a year.

We are much luckier than Kingsolver's Arizona brethren. Yes, pickings are slim in the off-season, but we Midwesterners have ample land for animal husbandry and a fertile soil that yields a bounty of crops. If there is any place you can still eat local in 2015, it's here.

But another resource is in play besides the food that is available to us. Perhaps more important is the economic commitment that is required to eat more local and sustainable foods.

DeSmet insists there are ways to do it on the cheap. "When you really look at it, getting produce at a farmers' market is no more expensive than going to the grocery store," he says. Growing your own food is also an economic option, one he actively encourages.

But another precious resource is required: time. Though it is certainly possible, I find it difficult to imagine a working single mother taking the time to cultivate the land when she barely has enough time to shower twice a week. Even scrambling to get across town to visit the "right" grocery store is proving a challenge for me.

My extreme challenge also exposes the complicated way that local artisans fit into a commitment to eating local. If the point is to support the local food economy, what about the independent coffee roasters using African beans, the craft breweries who import their hops, the corner bakeries using sugarcane? Surely they're part of the local food economy. Was I wrong to discount them?

As I pull into my neighborhood coffee and bakeshop, Colleen's Cookies, I think of the woman who owns it, Colleen Thompson, and how she parlayed a few hundred cookies baked for a charity event into a small, independent business. Yet in my ideological purity, I'd lumped her in with Wal-Mart. It just didn't seem right.

"I want my dollars to support re-growing the local food economy," DeSmet says. "At the farmers' market, we support local farmers, but also local businesses." He speaks of Estie Cruz-Curoe, owner of del Carmen, whose Cuban-style black beans are sold at area farmers' markets. Her raw ingredients, including the beans, are sourced throughout the United States, so technically, they're not a purely local product.

However, del Carmen has created jobs in the community as Cruz-Curoe has expanded and hired more employees. "That's what is important," DeSmet says. "When you support the local economy rather than going to a big-box store, the money stays here. Fundamentally, that's what matters."

Next: The challenge of truly eating locally

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